‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian
Posted by wanderlustathome
The abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.
For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.
Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.
“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”
As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.
Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,
“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.
Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,
“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”
The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.
What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as he leaves you with these words,
“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”
Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.
(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)